Saddle update

I’ve been working through a saddle fit puzzle this season.

There have been rubs and some white hairs developing and as I adjusted saddle pads and shims the rubs moved around… through occasional the uneven sweat patterns and roughed up hair – her back wasn’t sore.

Regardless I knew something wasn’t right. After the season ended I had her looked at by my bodyworker and found that she was severely sore in the shoulder area and though her back wasn’t sore along the topline she was contracting and not able to move optimally. It was serious, and she told me my saddle was too narrow in the front.

Knowing that wasn’t possible I brought out the saddle which is a Balance 8x GPJ and an unusually wide saddle for the purpose of allowing the maximum movement. When she saw the saddle we talked about my set up and it became clear that somehow the front of the saddle was still pressing down onto the shoulders as if the saddle was too narrow.

Verdict: you’ve got a saddle problem… a serious one.

After spending so much time assessing, puzzling, considering, trial and error over the season… I finally surrendered.

Maybe the saddle is just too wide and there’s no way to keep it off her shoulders. I love the saddle and I love the concept- so I got in touch with the folks at Balance for some input if a 7X (the next narrow) might be an option.

The company sent me instructions for a full consult and after uploading dozens of pictures and videos in and out of tack the answer came back better than expected: The current saddle I’m using indeed is a fit.

However it’s not working for a few reasons and L at Balance could explain why if I could take some time for a phone call.

I’ll share some of the basics of what she helped me with. Though everyone whose owned a horse has at some point struggled with saddle fit, each case is unique to the horse, saddle, rider and discipline. Maybe some of the pieces in my puzzle will help others as they sort out their own puzzles.

There are certainly things that one can get away with in more casual riding or shorter sessions in an arena that the amount of distance and varied terrain I cover for endurance training will not allow for. There is little room for tack errors in our sport.

A warning: I’m paraphrasing a conversation and how I understood it. If you’re interested in digging deeper there are lots of resources out there and I’d start with all the PDFs on the Balance Website. If you’re interested in their saddle concept they are amazingly helpful.

First there is a delicate balance between pressure and friction. Friction is the most obvious: missing hairs, white hair patches, roughed up fur, rub spots- these are from friction. I had been dealing with signs of friction and as I adjusted my saddle set up and pads the friction areas would move and change; Khaleesi didn’t have a traditionally sore back. Friction, though needs to be addressed, is less damaging in the long term than pressure. Pressure basically squeezes the blood out of soft tissue and over time creates deep tissue damage and atrophied muscle. You can solve a friction problem with pressure- if there’s enough pressure on the saddle and it basically sits on the horses back often how people have traditionally thought a saddle should fit- it will likely not move and you have no friction. However over time you starve the muscles of blood flow and eventually can shut down the movement in the back. This is a problem, but many people never even realize it. It becomes normal and their back looks just like the saddle panels… in fact the saddle appears to fit great… never moves… very stable.

Thankfully along her topline I had friction (which I would like to solve) but not pressure. However I did have pressure in the shoulders and near the withers.

Friction causing white hairs on the top line while ‘good sweat pattern’ in the shoulder area is where the pressure was coming down.

The saddle is extra wide in the front. The design is intended in the right circumstances to encourage blood flow and good freedom and range of motion. The company has specifically constructed pad options to help horses in different stages of development from past atrophied muscles or underdeveloped muscles from being out of shape.

I was using a similar half pad system in shape- but the pressure came from the material. The pad I was using had felt shims where the balance half pad is constructed from a closed cell foam which is designed to allow movement and blood flow (“squishy”) yet with enough structure to return to its shape immediately – so it immediately gives support where it’s needed. The felt doesn’t have give so though I was able to add structure, the saddle pressed down making the effect of it being narrow.

My mattes shim half pad that uses felt inserts

I will also add what they call a JB pad which is about 8” wide and will sit back a few inches from the front of the saddle. This “shim” will fill in any gap in her topline behind the wither that’s been created from the pressure on the front end hindering her movement and it will lift the saddle very slightly in the front creating a couple inches where the shoulders can now move freely again.

Adding to the destructive spiral has been my riding.

Due to my concern about the front end of the saddle pressure, I’ve done my best through the season to get off her front and encourage her hind to engage and front to lift. L saw the problem in the video footage- I’ve been staying too upright in the posting trot. Though I thought I could keep my weight and balance off her front, what really happened is I ended up pushing down more on the front. This explains why the problem continued to get worse the more I tried to fix it.

Here’s how:

First it’s hard to post up and down staying so upright over my feet. This means that I had to engage more tension which hinders her ability to move… Second it makes sitting back into the saddle gracefully almost impossible. Third this way of moving also put all my weight into my stirrups as I rose above them. This weight in the stirrups pushes the front of the saddle down onto the withers and shoulders making the horse more heave on the front end. As the pressure builds in the front end and shoulders from the felt half pad with no give pushing out the blood flow and compressing the soft tissue, Khaleesi gets more and more narrow during the ride which pushes the saddle down farther and creates a very bad cycle. Thus the saddle at the end of the ride is sitting very differently than it did in tacking up before the ride.

L helped me by talking through sitting and standing in a wooden chair to sort out a better way to counterbalance my upper body forward slightly in order to take weight out of my feet. She mentioned being careful not to go overboard because many riders get out of balance too far forward (which I have also done in years past and have now overcorrected).

I didn’t realize that you can make a horse heavy on the front both by leaning forward and not leaning enough forward! But after some experimentation it makes sense.

With a few simple base pad changes and some attention to my riding balance and counterbalance she thought the problem should go away. Having the closed cell pad should also give a better fit to help with the friction issues but I know that the weight in my stirrups was creating too much movement in the saddle and this all makes sense from my experience riding.

Last she suggested less bulk in my stirrup leathers could be helpful in my particular situation with this particular horse. She suggested switching to ‘T-bar” or “A web” stirrup leathers that attach to the stirrup bars with a loop and then are adjustable at the bottom of the stirrup which also has no metal buckle under the seat. That’s an inexpensive and easy adjustment as well and a pair of those are already on order.

The depth of layers the representative from Balance went over in collecting data both static and in motion, with and without saddle to see how my horse moved and how the saddle was functioning for the horse and the rider was beyond what I expected – but exactly what brought me to such interest in their saddling concept.

L also gave me some ideas to experiment with and I appreciated that she encouraged me to use my horse to determine what works and what doesn’t. As I try shifting weight around and the way I post or sit will become clear through how my horse responds and she suggested keeping what makes a positive shift and letting go of habits or ways of carrying my body that bring negative feedback.

Thankfully I have a mare who will let me know just what she thinks!


Horse Sneakers?

One of the biggest learning curves I’ve had bringing Khaleesi into the endurance world has been her hoof program.

It seems the question I get most often by riders and the general public alike is:

Is your horse wearing sneakers??

And the answer is

Actually, yes. We call them hoof boots

So I dedicate this post to the question of:

What exactly are hoof boots and why do you use them?

Most horses in regular work of any sort need some kind of hoof protection.

Even though hoof material is generally tough, horses can get sore feet due to genetics or improper care; and those who don’t struggle with tenderness can still wear down their hooves over time depending on terrain unless they are in very light work.

For centuries humans have dealt with this issue in domesticated equines by using metal horseshoes. Most people are aware of horse shoes even if they’ve never owned a horse. So once they see my horse does not have metal shoes they are curious as to why not.

My personal experience with Khaleesi who came to me as an unstarted 4 year old barefoot and roaming with a semi-feral herd on a massive farm in varied terrain, was that she would slow over any hard or rocky terrain which made it obvious to me her feet were sensitive even when ponied without a rider.

When I began to ride her more, I had to protect her feet that were sensitive to rocky terrain. I liked the idea of staying barefoot so I began to experiment with hoof boots.

Hoof boots are removable just like your own gym shoes so she could live barefoot in the field most of the time and for the few hours I rode her she would have her feet protected. It seemed like a perfect situation.

As horse owners are learning about the negative affects of metal horse shoes hoof boots are becoming more common and there are more hoof boots on the market today than ever before. I tried a couple different styles and no matter what I did with sizing and fitting and tweaking advice from the representatives they would not stay on reliably so at the time I gave up.

My farrier assured me that once I went with metal shoes like the majority of horse owners, my horse would move better and I would have less problems- so out of frustration and impatience I had him put on a set of metal shoes and began to compete in endurance riding.

At first she seemed to do better- but she was still sensitive on rocky ground, my farrier recommended adding pads to the shoes.

This also helped at first, and then when she was still struggling in shoes and pads- and had a serious abscess just before a 50 mile event I began to question if this was truly the best route.

It was our first 100 mile entry just over a year ago that we lost a shoe on mile 4 which really tore up her (now weakened) hoof. Though I could have had the ride farrier recreate her hoof with synthetic materials and put on a new metal shoe I knew in my gut that was only continuing to go the wrong direction for my horse so I decided to option out of the ride and go back to the drawing board. I knew that the metal shoes were weakening the hooves over time. I could see it.

Khaleesi’s feet recently after pulling all shoes, July 2017

Hind feet a couple months after pulling shoes.

Most recent photo I have of her feet from April 2017. Today almost 4 months later they are even more improved.

Hind feet April 2018

The more I searched, the evidence became clear and fell in line with my personal experience, for the most part metal are an easy quick answer for most but over the life of the horse do more harm than good. I believe now that many horses are successful in spite of metal shoes, not necessarily because of them.

There was a time when no other options were available and nailing on metal shoes were the only possibility. Yet technology has come so far in our world it seemed unlikely to me that we couldn’t do better than thousand-year-old hoof technology.

The hoof and frog play a part in pushing blood back up through the horse’s legs and when a metal shoe and metal nails stop the ability for the hoof and frog to expand and contract like a pump as they walk, the blood flow decreases, which will over time diminish the strength and health of the hoof as well as the legs.

Frog and sole right after removing shoes and pads June 2017

Healthier frog and sole January 2018

There are other issues such as the ability of the horse to feel varied terrain and learn to move through it with less injury. Shoes and pads can allow the horse run through rocky terrain but at what cost? Over time there is less blood flow, less feeling, less acute proprioceptiveness, and poorer hoof quality. This can lead to injury from stone bruises, abscesses and tendon damage as the horse has less ability to navigate the footing naturally. I saw this happen in my horse and those around me in the endurance world.

Other advantages I’ve found using boots vs. when we had metal shoes are:

  • I don’t have to wait an entire trim cycle to do small adjustments to her feet. This is better for the horse than waiting 4-6 weeks and making big adjustments.
  • Better blood flow through the legs and hoof over a year have led to better hoof quality
  • If I have a boot issue I can quickly adjust and fix myself- even on trail, if I lost a shoe in the past I needed a farrier visit.
  • My boots have so far lasted me over a year, this is much less expensive than new metal shoes every cycle were.
  • My horse did not like much of the shoeing process and I know from talking to others she’s not alone. Khaleesi hated the heat seal process my farrier insisted on to ensure a reliable set. I forced that on her even though she never got comfortable with it. A friend’s horse has to be sedated for the nailing and they’ve never found a physical pain-explaination. Many have to be in cross ties and though horses are able to be trained to comply (in some cases shut down)- that doesn’t mean they are comfortable. Barefoot trimming is something I can do much of myself and I am able to work with my horse as I go. I had a wonderful trimmer who used the reaction of the horse she trimmed to help her know if the changes were positive to the horse and I’ve been amazed at what the horse will tell you if you work with them!

By the time I was serious about going barefoot because I was finally out other of options, I’d found Scoot Boots and had success with them on the off season. I began to read more information on their website and blog about how to help build a healthier foot. I parted ways with my farrier (who I really liked and still do!) and found a barefoot trimmer who taught me the basics of how to begin taking care of my own trimming. I took more seriously the nutrition aspect and changed my feeding program.

Over the year of rebuilding a better hoof, I learned patience in allowing both the hoof to regrow stronger and to gradually but purposefully condition the hoof to varied terrain. Thankfully the Scoot Boots now were working for my horse where the past other boots had not stayed on. They stay on for about 90% of my riding with most training rides (often up to 20 miles) having no issues at all. Last Fall I completed a rocky 50 mile endurance ride with my Scoot Boots and they worked brilliantly!

Even more exciting to me was my last 50 that has little rocky terrain but miles of muddy trails. I did the majority of that ride completely barefoot coming up sound at the end and would have never imagined that possible a year ago!

Basically before I ride, I pick up my horses’s foot, pick out any dirt and rocks as usual, then slide on the hoof boot. Once the foot is back on the ground I secure two rubber toe straps and a pastern strap over a metal knob hook. It’s that simple.

The things I appreciate most about Scoot Boots that I find unique from the boots I tried previously are:

  • They are the easiest to get on and off.
  • No velcro! (Velcro wears out over time, it also can get dirt or snow packed into it making it less effective to keeping the boot in place)
  • No cloth parts attached that can tear away from the boot.
  • No wires or cables to break or have to be adjusted.
  • Very easy to clean off.
  • Easy to clip a spare on the saddle with just a carabiner and saddle ring. (No need for a hoof boot sack)
  • They have a great breakover for natural movement which makes them ideal for endurance riding for me.
  • The design allows for good drainage so in wet conditions they don’t accumulate water weight or debris.
  • They are flexible and allow the horse more proprioceptiveness and flexibility on varied terrain in the hoof itself like barefoot natural movement would.
  • The straps come in highly visible colors so I can see if they are still on in a quick glance (some other boots have taken this into account now as well).

As of now I don’t foresee using metal shoes again but I also know enough to never say never. Putting on a set of shoes for a ride and removing them within a week or so would not do enough damage to preclude the possibility in the future- especially for a 100 and also with the interesting options for non-metal shoes (NGs, epona or easyshoes).

For now my trimming learning curve appears to be working for my mare, the Scoot Boots are staying on reliably enough to complete 50 mile rides and I’m able to feel better about not forcing my horse to go along with a process she tried to tell me was not good for her for a couple of years and that matters a lot to me!

A few misc extra notes about hoof boots I’ve picked up in the past year:

  • They have a learning curve for you and your horse. Fit matters, and the first couple rides you may find them to twist or come off and it’s possible in a few rides your horse will learn to move in a way that encourages the boots to stay on and not twist.
  • Generally if you’re getting a farrier trim to enable you to get back into shoes after an off season without shoes, you will have a harder time keeping the boots on. I did not believe it- and my farrier told me it wasn’t true… but a barefoot and balanced trim IS different and boots are meant to fit in this foot trimmed this way. My boots stayed on much better when I found a true barefoot trimmer immediately.
  • Different boots work for different horses and people. I love Scoot Boots but they are not the only good boot. I know plenty of people who love their gloves and renegades too- you may have to try a few different kinds and that can take time and money. Try the hoof boot exchange on Facebook to buy and sell used to help!
  • Many boots have some modifications available either through the manufacturer or ideas of inventive people- there are studs, pads, shims, and many more. If you’re curious do a search about duct tape modifications, athletic tape modifications, vetwrap modifications, using sikaflex and who knows what else!! Be creative and consider problem solving yourself.

After months of using Scoot Boots successfully, competing in them and corresponding directly with the company regarding fit, use, modifications and other accessories, Scoot Boot became a sponsor of greento100 and my endurance riding. They send me products to try and give feedback and now supply Khaleesi’s boots.

The nuts and bolts

Saturday, July 7, 2018

On the road to the single day 100 it has become more clear the journey has developed into two major categories: the mental, relational and personal story; and the nuts and bolts details of saddles, hoof care, electrolytes, nutrition, fitness etc et al.

This offshoot blog will cover less of the reflective material and more of the tack reviews and questions about the informative details I ask or get asked about.

I hope this offshoot can be helpful when riders are curious about how tack is holding up over time and the process of how I’ve sorted out questions of care and management and ride days.